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Friday, 19 October 1984
Page: 2064

Senator PETER BAUME(12.23) —The Senate is debating three Bills : The Broadcasting and Television Amendment Bill 1984, the Broadcasting Stations Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1984 and the Television Stations Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1984. The Opposition generally welcomes the legislation. There is general support from the Opposition for many of the matters contained in the Bills and many of the initiatives which are being advanced. That does not mean that there is omnibus approval, and there are some comments to be offered about several areas of the Bills on which the Opposition has some concerns and about which it has some reservations.

Because we generally support the major piece of legislation, there will not be any opposition to the second reading of the Broadcasting and Television Amendment Bill; but in relation to the two Bills which deal with fees, the Opposition takes the view that there should not be an aggregation of fees-as is suggested by the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) in relation to these two Bills, one in relation to television and one in relation to radio-for both the original and the supplementary licences which may be issued at regional level. Because we are concerned about the effects which that aggregation might have, and because we think that it might reflect adversely upon the capacity of regional television and of regional broadcasting particularly, we shall oppose the Broadcasting Stations Licence Fees Amendment Bill and the Television Stations Licence Fees Amendment Bill at the second reading stage. That appears to be the best way to make our opposition to that part of the legislation clear.

We shall also move an amendment in the Committee stage of the Broadcasting and Television Amendment Bill in relation to the proposals which deal with the concentration of media ownership, because we believe there are provisions there which require further examination. We oppose the provisions in the Bill relating to concentration of media ownership as they have been laid down in this legislation and under the criteria which have been proposed. We are concerned about the way in which they have been presented and by the arguments which have been advanced. The explanatory memorandum provided with the legislation contains the following explanation on media ownership:

The Tribunal may not refuse to grant a supplementary licence in an area unless it determines that a second commercial licence is likely to be viable in the area and that it is in the public interest that applications for such a licence be invited. The public interest criteria to be considered by the Tribunal is amended to include consideration of whether granting the supplementary licence would lead to undue concentration of media ownership or control in the area.

Here is the point from the explanatory memorandum:

'Media' includes both radio and television stations licensed to serve the area and newspapers, journals and the like available in the area.

This means that for the first time when considering applications for licences in relation to electronic media, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal is required to take into account the ownership of print media. It is a criterion which does not apply to capital city major stations. The provision relating to the print media has never been specifically required before in the consideration of any licence application, and it will still not be required for licence renewals, either of an original regional licence or of a metropolitan licence for radio or television.

What we are discussing is the question contained in the legislation of how one might issue supplementary licences in regional areas. The Opposition is not in any way opposed to the concept of providing supplementary licences, or to the proposal to issue them. It will be no secret that during our time in government we had this matter under active consideration, and I remember that there were extensive and detailed discussions within government as to how one would approach the question of supplementary licences-that is, extra licences in an area-how one would regulate it, how one would offer them, and how one would protect the public interest. The benefit to the public, of course, is to increase the range of offering through the electronic media in any area, and in regional areas this can be of great importance. Many people from regional areas tell us that the offerings available to them are limited.

The Minister has made it clear that among the major provisions of this amending legislation are:

Firstly, insertion of concentration of media ownership as a factor to be considered by the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal in considering supplementary radio or television licence applications.

It goes beyond any consideration of electronic media which is the traditional concern of the Federal Government. It goes into questions of the ownership of print media, journals, newspapers and the like, which might be available in an area. This has never been an area which the Commonwealth has sought to oversight or oversee.

We are concerned, and have been concerned all along, that proper provision should be made to examine the question of concentration of media ownership. We recognise, and I think all honourable senators recognise, that it is undesirable in Australia to have too much concentration of media ownership. We are concerned that the provisions as they are proposed in the legislation may in fact be self- defeating. They may make it very difficult for supplementary licences to be issued with sufficient ease and make it more difficult for those who may be viable in operating supplementary licences to obtain them. We think that the proposal is contrary to the policy decisions of the Tribunal itself. When regional television was being established an examination of the ownership of print media was not among the criteria taken into effect. We propose to move amendments at the Committee stage relating to the Broadcasting and Television Amendment Bill, which is the major Bill. That leaves the question of fee aggregation. The Minister in his second reading speech said:

. . . secondly, the aggregation of gross earnings to determine total licence fees payable by those holding both a supplementary and commercial station licence . . .

What does this mean? It means that the gross incomes which the stations obtain will be added together for the purposes of calculating the licence fees which will be payable. There will be a fee aggregation of the fee for the original licence and the supplementary licence when the one applicant holds both. The Opposition is concerned that this provision is unfair. Although it will maximise government revenue from television and radio licences which are in the hands of commercial holders, we think that it is unfair. We think it is unfair for the following reasons: Firstly, it will cause the licence holder considerable initial expense; secondly, we think that the progressive nature of the licence fee scale will mean that higher gross income will be obtained by aggregating the income from the original and the supplementary licences. If it was not a progressive scale that would not be so, but because the scale is progressive it will have the effect of artificially inflating the fee which will be payable. This provision will increase greatly the licence fee even where there has been no increase in the gross income received through either licence.

We are also concerned that the provision is unfair because it may lead to a different level of fees for the same licence under different circumstances. If it is a supplementary licence to an original licence that will produce one situation and if it is a supplementary licence held independently by a second applicant that will provide a completely different situation. We could end up with the same level of gross income being generated but different fees being payable because of aggregation if there is common ownership and no aggregation where the licences are held separately. The fee could be twice as much even though the gross income might be the same. As the Broadcasting and Television Act requires that separate accounts be kept by the original and the supplementary licence holders and the stations, and as the Government can pick up the fee from each, the Opposition thinks that the simplest way to go is not to aggregate but to accept that people should be paying the same kinds of licence fees in respect of stations which are producing the same kinds of gross income. Because of that we will oppose the two licence Bills at the second reading stage, as was done in another place.

Finally, I wish to comment very briefly on some aspects of the main Bill, which we do support, to make clear that where I opened up and said that we do support the Bill that is, in fact, the case. First of all, we support the idea of allowing one supplementary licence to cover all translator facilities necessary to provide the same service area as the existing licence. This is a sensible amendment. The translators will be necessary as ultra high frequency television and frequency modulation radio do not have the same signal as very high frequency and amplitude modulation on the existing licence. Secondly, we support the provision to allow the Tribunal to enable the licensee to phase in the translators over a five-year licence period. We consider that is sensible and financially necessary. It has our support. Thirdly, we support the proposal to amend the Act to block potential loopholes only recently discovered; for example , to require the Tribunal's approval for any transaction by which a person acquires a prescribed interest, whether it is by shareholding or voting rights and, secondly, to correct an unexpected result of the 1981 amendment which provided a six-month period of grace after receiving Tribunal approval where the ownership control provisions were unintentionally breached. We support all those provisions. In summary, we will oppose the two licence fees amendment Bills at the second reading stage. We will support the main Bill, the Broadcasting and Television Amendment Bill, but at the Committee stage we will seek to move the amendments which have been circulated and which deal with the matters which I have raised where we think the proposal is not entirely equitable.